Albania's European Union membership negotiations could start after the European elections in May and Zagreb will firmly stand by Tirana during that process, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said after meeting with his Albanian counterpart Edi Rama on Tuesday in Zagreb.
"We believe that after the European elections, a consensus will be reached to formally launch membership negotiations, and Croatia will strongly support starting that process with Albania," Plenkovic said after meeting Rama as part of a Central European Initiative (CEI) summit in Zagreb.
He said that for Albania and Macedonia it was crucial to begin with intergovernmental conferences and to open the accession negotiations. He said that conclusions from a June meeting of EU's foreign ministers - in which they recommended starting accession talks with those two countries pending reforms - showed that 2018 was the year in which the two countries were becoming familiar with the EU's legal rules and regulations.
Rama said that Albania and Croatia traditionally had good relations, and that they had been growing closer ever since Croatia gained independence in the early 1990s.
"I thank Croatia for its unreserved support to Albania, but also for the recognition of Kosovo, and our NATO membership... From the beginning of Croatia's birth, Albania has always been there for its friend, and Croatia has always been there for Albania " Rama told reporters.
Croatia recognised Kosovo's independence from Serbia a month after it had been unilaterally proclaimed by Pristina in 2008, and Albania and Croatia joined the NATO alliance together in April 2009.
He said that the statement on strategic partnership between the two countries signed on Tuesday served to give a new impetus to Albania-Croatia relations.
"We also talked about further development of our economic cooperation, and we agreed to organise an economic forum next year," Rama said.
Plenkovic said that the statement of strategic partnership would promote more trade between the two countries, which currently amounts to more than €60 million per year.
"We want our cooperation to continue within various trilateral and quadrilateral formats in Southeast Europe, notably in terms of the Adriatic-Ionian corridor, as well as the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline, which is a project that is interesting to both our countries," said Plenkovic.
The Adriatic-Ionian road corridor is a planned international motorway stretching along the entire eastern coast of the Adriatic from Italy to Greece. Partially completed, for Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, the project is seen as a major infrastructure project.
The Ionian Adriatic Pipeline is a planned 500-kilometre natural gas pipeline to be built between the Albanian city of Fier to Croatia's port city of Split, where it could be connected to Croatia's gas distribution system, or the yet-to-be built liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the island of Krk.
Kosovo tariffs "abnormal"
Asked about the currently strained relations between Serbia and Kosovo, Rama said that Serbia had violated the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) first, and that in spite of Kosovo complaining about it, there was no response from the other side.
In November, Pristina imposed tariffs on all imports from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a move which violates the rules of the regional CEFTA free trade area that all three countries are part of.
Rama did admit that Kosovo's recent move to impose 100 percent tariffs on imports from Serbia was "abnormal," but added that the current state of affairs was abnormal too.
In spite of the EU slamming the decision, Pristina officials insisted that the move was made to protect local producers, but also hinted that it came in retaliation for Serbia's vehement opposition to Kosovo's membership in international organisations. Unlike Croatia, neither Serbia nor Bosnia recognise Kosovo's independence.
PM Plenkovic said that Croatia wanted to maintain good relations with everyone involved - Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia.
"We want relations to normalise and stabilise, and that is what EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn spoke about today," said Plenkovic, referring to Hahn's visit to the CEI summit earlier on Tuesday.
The meeting between Plenkovic and Rama was the last bilateral meeting held as part of the CEI summit in Zagreb, which formally ended its rotating presidency of the regional forum. In 2019, Italy will take over presiding the organisation, established nearly 30 years ago to help countries in European integration.